Common Myths of the Wars of the Roses: Richard III: Victim of Tudor Propaganda? Part 1

In the past year, while writing my sixth novel set during the Wars of the Roses, I’ve had to confront directly in my research the legend that is Richard III. So much has been written about this king that it is in danger of simply deteriorating into ‘white noise’. Over a period of decades of examining the sources and reading the historians, I am still astonished not only by what is said but also the vehemence with which many assertions are made.

Richard_III_earliest_surviving_portrait

Richard III [Wikimedia Commons]

There are so many myths about Richard that it’s difficult to know where to start, but one view which endures is that Richard’s reputation was destroyed by Tudor propaganda.

The fragmentary evidence we have about Richard is often seriously flawed. So when we talk glibly about Richard, or Henry Tudor for that matter, being ‘popular’ or ‘unpopular’ we are basing our assessment on tiny shards of evidence. That alone is reason enough to question our conclusions.

In this post, I am focusing on how Richard’s actions were perceived by others in 1483.

Before 1483, even most of the political classes would never have met Richard, Duke of Gloucester – or any other important lord. Their world was their manor, or perhaps at most, their county. They would know the leading men of the land only by reputation – by stories of what they were said to have done. It was wholly subjective and unreliable, but it was pretty much all they had.

There were no newspapers or social media, so they must glean snippets out of personal letters from friends at court, or others they knew. Everything was hearsay – informed hearsay – from the tiny few who witnessed any events of importance. News was spread by word of mouth and opinion filtered downwards since every lord in each stratum of society would have his own clients – his political, social and economic dependents.

You can imagine how the information received – and passed on – by these clients, changed with the telling and retelling. What started out as: “did Richard have a hand in the death of the ‘Princes’?” might well end up as: “Richard murdered them!”

But surely this is a case of a man whose reputation was tarnished after his fall by a vengeful victor?

There is no question that before the summer of 1483, Richard was generally held in high regard as: the loyal brother of the late king, a brave soldier, the successful general of the recent Scottish war, the good lord and supporter of his clients and tenants.

That Richard was still revered even at the end of his reign by many in the north is suggested by an entry in the York Records for 23rd August 1485 – the day after Bosworth: “King Richard, late lawfully reigning over us, was… piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of this city.”

Nevertheless, the battle over Richard III’s reputation began well before 1485. 

Richard’s image with some folk was pretty tarnished long before Bosworth. In a matter of months during summer 1483, the good opinion of Richard changed drastically. By October 1483 there was an unsuccessful rebellion against Richard which alone is evidence of discontent among at least some the ruling classes of the southern counties. Since it also involved the betrayal of Richard by his closest ally, the Duke of Buckingham, it could not have given people much confidence.

More striking still is that those who supported Henry Tudor’s first bid for the throne formed a rather unholy alliance of die-hard Lancastrian exiles and loyal servants of the Yorkist Edward IV. In fact most came from the latter group who should have been Richard’s natural supporters.

Such a significant shift in opinion could not have been caused by Henry Tudor alone – or his mother, Lady Margaret Stanley, née Beaufort. Indeed few men in England were in direct contact with Henry when the first rebellion occurred.

So, why did some Yorkists choose to support Henry Tudor rather than Richard III? The answer lies not in Tudor propaganda, but in the events between April and July 1483.

In April 1483, en route to the coronation in London, Richard arrested Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, and several other members of Edward V’s household. This caused some political shockwaves and did not promote an atmosphere of calm. Though the Woodvilles are usually presented, rightly or wrongly, as unpopular, Anthony Woodville, the queen’s brother, might be seen as among the best of them.

I have seen it written countless times that Rivers “hated” Gloucester, so let me be clear on this point: there is no evidence whatsoever that Rivers and Gloucester resented, or disagreed with, or were hostile to – each other before the moment of Rivers’ arrest.

Nor is there any credible evidence that Rivers was plotting against Gloucester, who expected to be confirmed as Protector by the King’s Council when he arrived in London. As the maternal uncle and governor of the Prince of Wales, Rivers was closer to the new boy king than any other leading nobleman. Rivers was not arrested because of what he had done, but because of what he might do. It was a pre-emptive strike and pre-emptive strikes unsettle people.

Gloucester might, in part at least, have been responding to letters from Lord Hastings – the close ally of young Edward’s father – urging him to weaken the power of the queen’s family lest they should dominate the new reign. Hastings, though rightly viewed by many – both then and since – as a ‘reliable pair of hands’, panicked in April 1483. Why? Because he, unlike Gloucester, was wary of the queen and especially hostile to her eldest son, Thomas, Marquis of Dorset.

All the same, when Gloucester arrested Rivers and the others, many in the Council, and beyond, accepted his explanation that there was a Woodville plot against him, though they had no intention of allowing Gloucester to take complete control of the government. In the ensuing weeks councillors worked in two groups: one discussed arrangements for the coronation, while another met separately with Gloucester.

What little evidence we have hints that this division of the council caused mutterings. What, some wondered, was Gloucester discussing with his small group of councillors? Though such thoughts do not constitute opposition to the Protector, they do at least suggest some unease.

Few could have been aware that in mid- June Richard sent letters north calling urgently for troops. If they had been, they might have been more concerned, because in London they would have seen little evidence of the continuing plot which Richard claimed as the justification for it. The queen was in sanctuary at Westminster, so hardly ‘on side’ but she had little opportunity and no resources to challenge Gloucester.

Then, on 13th June 1483, a singular event occurred: Lord Hastings, loyal stalwart of the previous regime, and apparent ally of the Protector, was dragged from the council chamber and brutally beheaded at Gloucester’s command.

Also, John Morton, Bishop of Ely and Lord Thomas Stanley, among others, were summarily arrested. Lord Stanley, like Hastings, was a key figure in the kingdom and not to be trifled with lightly.

It is often suggested that opinion hostile to Richard was confined to the southern counties where the October rebellion broke out, but the power base of Lord Thomas Stanley – released by Gloucester on good behaviour – was in the north-west. Whatever views Lord Stanley, or his many clients, held about Gloucester before 13th June, I doubt he was their best friend afterwards.

This is the pivotal event of the summer. Why? Because if William Hastings, staunch Yorkist and close supporter of Gloucester, could be treated thus, then no man could feel safe.

From that moment on, there was an atmosphere of suspicion and fear at court. When it did become known that Gloucester had sent for a northern army, that only accentuated the alarm. Since the death of Edward IV, Gloucester had imprisoned or executed three of the half dozen most influential magnates in the kingdom and a fourth, Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, appeared to be his most trusted ally. What conclusion would any experienced courtier draw from that?

This, remember, is before any suggestion of Gloucester taking the throne, let alone killing his nephews, but we can be pretty sure that the question on everyone’s mind at court was: what is Gloucester going to do next?

Then, as if by magic, several claims were made questioning the legitimacy of King Edward V. People at court were not stupid – influenced by rumour and self-interest, yes – but not stupid. The fact that these allegations surfaced only days after Hastings’ execution was not lost on anyone. Let us not forget that there were far more men of influence in London than usual because of the impending coronation. Such men wrote letters to their relatives, or to their clients in the country which support the conclusion that opinion of Gloucester was shifting. Where there had been confidence, now there was, at best, confusion and at worst, suspicion.

Then there was the coronation…

RIII_royal arms

The royal arms of Richard III [Creative Commons license in the Public Domain]

Opinion was shifting amongst many who had served Edward IV. When Gloucester first postponed the king’s coronation, most would have agreed with him. Time was too short for the arrangements to be made and a delay until June 22nd seemed sensible. But when the coronation was postponed for a second time, it caused only consternation and confusion. The accusations that the new king was illegitimate might need to be investigated but that did not mean that Richard had to be crowned king at once in his nephew’s stead. But the momentum was with Gloucester and he pushed ahead regardless of opinion amongst the political classes.

Some wondered about the reason for Hastings’ death – few at court could have taken seriously the allegation that he was plotting with the queen against Richard. They watched Richard take the throne and they joined the dots. When the sons of the late king ceased to be seen in the Tower gardens, they joined the dots again.

It matters little now – as it mattered little then – whether Richard was guilty or not. Enough men of substance were incensed by the events of the summer of 1483 and the likelihood [unproven, of course] that the sons of Edward IV were dead.

Many did nothing, preferring – in the light of bitter past experience – to see where events took them – but others wanted action and very likely it was a distraught and embittered dowager queen, Elizabeth Woodville, who fanned the flames.

The strength of their opinion is shown by their willingness to support an exile about whom they knew nothing and whose claim to the throne could not have been weaker.

Their outrage was a lifeline for Henry Tudor languishing, penniless, in Brittany. His mother, Margaret Beaufort, was determined to engineer his return to England and lost no time in apprising him of the changed situation. Thus, even before his 1485 invasion, Henry was referring to Richard as an “unnatural tyrant” and an “enemy of nature”.

Were these phrases propaganda? Yes, for such words made the assumption that Richard was guilty of having the ‘Princes’ killed. But they were also the sort of remarks routinely flung out to rally potential supporters and Richard delivered comparable slurs about Henry as a would-be ‘usurper’.

The shift in opinion in the summer of 1483 did not ensure that Henry Tudor would be successful but it did mean that Richard’s regime, which depended on a small number of very powerful men, lacked a groundswell of support. Rumours circulated – not only in England, but abroad – which undermined Richard’s credibility.

Although many might not, in the end, take up arms against Richard III, they might not fight for him either.

In the next post on this theme, I shall address the issue of Tudor propaganda after 1483.

[N.B. This post appeared first on the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog]

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This entry was posted in History, Medieval History, Plantagenets, Richard III, Wars of the Roses and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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